Project Rinascita – Taking the Vita From Zero to Hero
Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past four years, you know that the Nintendo Switch is the premier handheld console these days. It’s certainly got a lot going for it – good performance (for a handheld), a decent selection of diverse game titles, and its storage is expandable by an extremely common means – a Micro SD card. This last point in particular gives it a strong edge over a contender from the previous generation – the Playstation Vita. The Vita’s proprietary storage – famous for its small sizes, slow speeds, and terrible prices – was certainly a nail in its coffin, but it was just one of many; between faltering developer support, occasionally lackluster performance and visuals, the user interface missing several sorely needed features, and the endless frustrations that came with forced usage of the Content Manager, the Vita is now looked back upon by many as an ambitious but mishandled failure of a console.
However, an “ordinary” Vita still has several advantages over the Switch… Its controls are more solid than those on the Joy Cons – especially the analog sticks. The OLED screen on the original model is much nicer than the standard LCD on the Switch. The Vita can also take pictures and videos, play music, play videos, and browse the internet – things the Switch notably left out of its interface, despite the Joy Cons having built-in cameras. These alone are nice bonuses that at least carve the Vita its own niche, but overall, the Switch still wins the day… Right?
Look… Maybe on most websites, article writers would pretend that hacks and homebrew don’t exist, but you’ve come here often enough to know better of Wololo by now, haven’t you? You read the article title, you know exactly what I’m leading up to, here; every one of the Vita’s weaknesses – every single one of them – can be fixed, improved, or otherwise rubbed out of existence with modern tools… To the point where I now pick up my Vita every day or two, while my Switch has been lying unused on my desk for weeks. If you’ve had a Vita for a while or have been following the news dutifully reported on this site for years, you probably know about most of what I’m about to cover; if you haven’t, then this article will be a great way for you to see just what a Vita can do at its very best these days. Either way, I had an awful lot of fun discovering and taking advantage of all of this, and I couldn’t help but want to share the results!
FIRST THINGS FIRST… Dealing With That Pesky Content Manager
I first got my beloved Vita on Christmas of 2013. At the time, when you talked about two versions of the Vita, it wasn’t between the classic and slim – it was between the Wi-Fi model, and the 3G. The 3G model of the Vita was – to put it mildly – a colossal waste of resources; despite my Vita (model PCH-1101) having this feature, I never used it… Like most who owned a 3G Vita, I looked into how much the feature would cost – $30 a month, which was about $29 more a month than I could afford at the time – and I looked into what the feature would allow me to do – namely, it wouldn’t let me play games online anywhere, or download games anywhere, but it could at least web browse – and decided promptly that the feature that had cost my parents an extra $50 (they hadn’t known the difference and an unscrupulous salesperson probably took their chance to upsell them) wasn’t worth using.
I didn’t know it then, but it was the best possible model of the Vita that I could have owned.
Not that it did me much good at the time… The 3G chip’s useful functionality boiled down to being a funny little plastic flap for me to fidget around with during game cutscenes, and the slim Vita with the cheaper screen was over a year away, so I enjoyed the vanilla experience for almost five years. I always kept my eyes open for exploits – before I got my Vita, I had a PSP, and I’d loved how easy it was to hack – but it wasn’t until 2018 that I got my first real chance at it with TheOfficialFloW‘s h-encore; previous exploits usually required games that I didn’t own (and would have trouble owning as Sony often removed them from the shop quickly once they noticed people were exploiting them) and tended to only hack the PSP portion of the system… And, as a person who’d dedicated themselves to the multiplayer of Soul Sacrifice far past the point that most people had moved on from it, my (misguided) need to continue updating made the full, proper release of Henkaku-Enso inaccessible until that time… But I’m getting ahead of myself, here.
The first thing I needed to do, when I learned that H-Encore was a viable hack, was figure out how to get it on the Vita in the first place – the proprietary storage and enforced Content Manager connection for file transfers made a simple drag-‘n’-drog process impossible. It’s a little easier these days, thanks in part to this guide here (this same site has helped many a user hack their 3DS as well) and SKGleba‘s VitaDeploy, which only released on March 27th of this year, but simplifies the process of installing H-Encore on a stock Vita to a ridiculous degree; click a couple buttons and you’re done! Back in 2018, I had to install a custom USB driver on my PC using Zadig – which crashed my computer a couple times before I got it right – to trick the Vita into allowing the necessary file to be beamed through. With that done, you could leave it as is and re-activate H-Encore every time you reboot… Which I did for an embarrassingly long time… Or you could then elect to forcibly install firmware v3.65, which allows Ensō to be installed – this keeps the exploit running with your Vita at all times. Since you can spoof your firmware version to maintain online connectivity, I strongly recommend doing this!
Now, since this method of install comes bundled with VitaShell, Content Manager’s usefulness is at an end, and that’s the practical installation out of the way – the system’s capabilities have been opened. You’ve got direct file access, and homebrew accessibility. Where do we go from here? Well, let’s address the flaws I listed above, one by one…
PROBLEM #1: Proprietary Storage
Ah, the Vita memory card… 64 gigabytes maximum size, Class 6 speeds that were cutting edge back when the market for CRT TVs was still kicking, and prices that were high at launch and only getting worse with their current scarcity… You needed one of these things no matter what – sure, the slim Vita came with some internal memory, but only a single gigabyte; all you could really do with that was update a cartridge-based game or download some smaller indie titles, like developer Poppy‘s Nintendo-hard retro platformer Halloween Forever. Thankfully, there’s one easy plugin to get around this – yifanlu‘s usbmc – and three easy-to-configure methods to connect the new storage – one way that works on any Vita or PSTV, one way that works only on the PSTV, and one way that only works on a 3G Vita.
SD2Vita is the most commonly recommended and used adapter. It’s so easy to get that there’s listings for it all over even accessible spots like Amazon – so many that searching for a Vita memory card on there actually brings up SD2Vita adapters first in the results! It couldn’t be any easier to figure out – you just plug a micro-SD card into the adapter, then plug that adapter into your game card slot. Initialize it with a couple prompts from usbmc, and it works! There’s only one caveat… You have to give up your game card slot. For users willing to simply back up their game collection (or those who only buy digital anyway), this won’t be a problem, but if you have a 3G Vita or PSTV, I’d recommend choosing the compatible next option instead.
The PSTV has what is both the cheapest and most flexible means of expanding its storage – you can just plug storage into the USB slot and initialize it with usbmc; instead of spending the $7 or so on an SD2Vita, you can just plug a flash drive into the thing. Pretty much nothing is lost this way – you can always plug in a splitter if you need to pair or charge a controller at the same time. Not a bad option…
But I think I still prefer this last one: the PSVSD. It’s a simple micro-SD-reader chip that you can replace the 3G chip in a capable Vita with, and since it’s an internal mod, your game card slot is left intact! These chips are a little harder to get your hands on than SD2Vita, but you can find them (the good quality SphereSolid chips, not the AliExpress knockoff that requires soldering) here at ModChipCentral.
No matter how you get there, the extra space is a serious boon, and allows you to install your whole collection (and then some) in one go if you’d like to! Problem #1: Taken care of!
PROBLEM #2: Faltering Dev Support (i.e. Lack of Games)
This problem tends to get exaggerated a bit; fact is, the Vita still supports plenty of official Vita, PSP and PlayStation games… Still, there could have been so many more, between more first and third party titles on the native end, more PS2-era ports in the vein of Persona 4 Golden and The Sly Collection, and more ports of curious omissions from the classic library, like Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII and Ape Escape. So, what can be done?
First off, we can install Adrenaline, another quality plugin from our friend TheOfficialFloW. In practice, this is essentially a PSP emulator, and if you want to launch all of your PSP and PlayStation stuff from the PSP frontend, you can… Or, by using Leecherman’s Adrenaline Bubble Booter, you can make custom bubbles to allow you to launch games from the Vita frontend instead. You should also grab NoNpDrm, which allows loading of Vita backups as well.
From there, to increase the number of consoles you can enjoy the games from, you can grab separate emulators – Rinnegatamante‘s Daedalus X64 is coming along pretty nicely – or just use good ol’ Retroarch to get a bunch of emulators in one… Nothing like playing a little SEGA Genesis on the go without a Nomad! If you use Retroarch, you can make custom bubbles for that, too, with DRok17‘s RetroBuilder.
Not enough for you? There’s been tons of fan ports hitting the scene recently, too! Rockstar’s PS2 hits are all getting ported over, like Grand Theft Auto: Vice City and Bully: Anniversary Edition: Wololo’s been reporting like crazy on all of those. But there’s still more! Everything from Doki Doki Literature Club! to Diablo + Hellfire has been ported by loyal fans, and more ports – like the Android pre-sequel Dead Space – are on the way!
Several official Vita games that never saw the light of day outside of Japan have also been translated for the Vita – using dots-tb‘s Repatch – by devoted fans: I am Setsuna and all the Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky games are great, but Catherine: Full Body takes it a step further by not only translating the subtitles of the full game and its DLC, but even porting the English dub over from the official Western releases!
And, of course, there’s always pure homebrew games: budgetless titles that are completely original, like crait‘s Treasure Chasers (which has always reminded me of LJN’s Jaws game on the NES, but much better), are always a good time.
Combine all these things together, and you might be amazed at just how many great games you can get on the Vita. Don’t believe me? Just take a look for yourself…
PROBLEM #3: Lackluster Performance and Visuals
While the Vita is a very nice piece of hardware (so nice that it sold at a loss – likely another contributor to Sony’s decision to retire it, but not one we can fix here), it doesn’t always look or run its best… Whether it be because of the game itself being poorly optimized (very much the case with The Jak & Daxter Collection), or the system clocking itself too conservatively (the CPU clock was almost always locked to a max value of 333 MHz, despite having 33% more available), performance hitches were a common thing. Some developers did nothing to compensate – hence Jak 3 running as horribly as it does – while others (like Street Fighter X Tekken and LittleBigPlanet PS Vita) reduced their render resolutions, which definitely stabilized performance, but also significantly reduced visual quality.
Thankfully, both of these issues can be cleaned up pretty easily! The performance hiccups can be smoothed over with two simple plugins – the first, Electry‘s PSVshell, enables the changing of both the GPU (ES4) and CPU clockrates; the GPU can be forced to its maximum frequency of 222 MHz, while the CPU can not only be forced to its maximum frequency of 444 MHz, but overclocked 500 MHz for even better performance. Both can be turned all the way up at all times, and while that will drain the battery faster, things will perform much better, and the system will only run slightly hot (no hotter than a Switch gets in handheld mode). Since these clock profiles can be set on a per-game basis (no need to worry about losing extra battery when you’re playing 2D games like Shovel Knight) and compatibility is perfect (previous clock-controller plugin LOLIcon has a tendency to crash PSP and PlayStation games), PSVshell is the optimal choice.
As for improving render resolutions, Electry‘s plugin (and related configurator bubble) VitaGrafix is your best option. Over a hundred games are supported, from Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation to Ys VIII: Lacrimosa of Dana, and you can not only increase the resolution of several games (either directly, by modifying Internal Resolution, or by raising the Framebuffer, which is more selective but still a great improvement in most games), but you can alter Frame-Rate caps (raising them from 30 to 60; or vice versa to account for the performance hit from resolution upgrades) for some games as well! I can’t stress enough just how great a step up this is for affected games: WipEout 2048 at 544p, 60 FPS, looks so good and plays so well, I actually prefer it over the PS4 WipEout Omega Collection release!
Two games even let you take it a step further… Catherine: Full Body and Persona 4 Golden, when put through cuevavirus‘ SharpScale (also a useful plugin for getting better quality video output from your PSTV) with individual patches, allow you to play the games not just at native Vita resolution (the original release of P4G rendered at 476p), but at 720p, or even 1080p! You can enjoy this to the fullest with a PSTV, but even a portable Vita benefits from the supersampling this provides – Igor’s nose won’t have a single aliased bit remaining!
PROBLEM #4: Missing UI Features/Glitches
Anyone who’s owned a portable Vita – or even picked one up briefly, for that matter – knows that the Vita’s default battery display is horrible. What percentage is it at? Is it consistent between batteries? Is it consistent on the same battery from month to month? Nope – none of that… But it could be even worse than that. One of the major contributors to my decision to hack my Vita – apart from all the fantastic stuff listed above – was the fact that my battery had been glitching for some time – whenever my Vita wasn’t plugged in and it got to about half-battery, the battery would switch between the half-battery status and critical, occasionally forcibly putting the Vita to sleep before allowing me to promptly wake it up with the PS button… And it would keep doing that, over and over, until it reached a low percentage, where the glitch resolved itself for some reason… Until I recharged it, and the problems begun anew.
As such, certain plugins were a great help. The easiest way to get these installed and working today is ONElua‘s Autoplugin2. This not only installs Vita plugins in the proper spots to minimize potential hassle, but comes bundled with extremely useful applications, like SKGleba‘s PSP2-batteryfixer, which promptly cleaned up my battery-related woes. nowrep‘s vita-shellbat adds a proper percentage to your battery display. After that, I recommend installing cuevavirus‘ Quick Menu Plus, which adds Power Off and Restart buttons – as well as a volume slider – to your Vita’s Quick Menu, along with decreasing the amount of time you need to hold the PS button down to bring the menu up, and making it partially transparent. You can also use NoPowerLimits to prevent certain games from reducing your screen’s brightness and turning off your Wi-Fi, and VitaBright, which lets you adjust brightness beyond Vita limits (both ways – either going higher to make things easier to see in the daylight, or going lower with an added yellow tint for reduced eye strain in the dark).
If you want to change your controls up a bit, you can always go into the Henkaku settings to swap your Vita’s Cross and Circle buttons, but if you want to take it a step further, Rinnegatamante‘s AnalogsEnhancer lets you alter your Vita’s analog sticks to customize their responsiveness and deadzones. If you want further improvements in your PlayStation games or with PS4 Remote Play, there are custom cases you can purchase to have proper L2 and R2 buttons to press (though it uses the rear touch pad as the input overall, so it can’t add genuine new controls like a Circle Pad Pro); or, you could use Dualshock 3 and/or Dualshock 4 controllers with xerpi‘s controller plugins.
Are screenshots more your thing? You’ve got three essential plugins there: pngshot changes the format of screenshots from Bitmap to PNG, removes watermarks that certain games add, and removes restrictions that certain apps place on taking screenshots; PSOneScrot fixes this last issue further by enabling screenshots in PlayStation games as well. As a final touch, reScreeny makes screenshots easy to find by putting them in proper folders named after the game shots were taken in.
Want to download files while you’re web browsing? TheOfficialFloW‘s Download Enabler will take care of that. Missed a handful of trophies since online features in some games (like Playstation All-Stars Battle Royale) were taken down? SilicaAndPina‘s TropHAX is an option; potentially a risky one, but it’s up to you to make that call. Want to stream your Vita’s gameplay to your PC for recording or playback on a bigger screen? xerpi‘s udcd_uvc is the plugin for you. And, if you’re a worrywart that wants to protect their Vita from potential bricks, teakhanirons‘ EmergencyMount will take care of that problem by allowing you to choose partition mount at boot simply by holding down Triangle.
There’s dozens more plugins to take advantage of, too; and more are coming out every year! Who knows what incredible things the Vita could be capable of next? Native resolution PSP and PlayStation games? Further clock-speed enhancements? Hardware mods in the same vein as the PSVSD that actually add programmable buttons? Only time will tell…
TO SUM UP…
In any case, now is THE time to buy a Vita – pandemic and post-pandemic electronics price hikes, paired with the Vita’s inevitable descent into scarcity (a fate which befalls all things that cease active production), are going to inflate the price of Vita hardware more and more… So, if you’ve been wondering whether or not now is the time, believe me – YES, it absolutely is! Cracking them open is the easiest it’s ever been, and the features you get access to for doing so have progressed to the point where ignoring them is tantamount to crawling under a rock! A reborn Vita is truly something special, and having one now feels like having access to an excellent and truly exclusive club – so why not join up?